I was surprisingly enamored by reading the Frugalwood’s recent post about living in the country. Jenni and I live in an area that isn’t quite a traditional downtown, but is certainly urban and within the city limits.
The pandemic seems to be making people reconsider urban living. Cities experiencing large scale protests in the US may be driving some of that, too. Prepping and bunker interest seem to be hitting highs. YouTube has been feeding me unsolicited videos on modern-day in-ground bunkers.
I found Mrs. Frugalwood’s post to illicit a little envy from me, thinking about the advantages of rural life. She did a great job of being balanced and honest about the different positive experiences they’ve had as a family in a rural area as well as the pitfalls.
My Rural Experience
While Jenni grew up in Virginia, I’ve lived across the country. My entire childhood was in traditional middle-class American suburbia, total ticky-tacky. I didn’t have much of a rural or urban experience as a kid. That changed pretty quickly when I wound up in the hills of Appalachia for undergrad.
The college had a student population smaller than the high school Jenni and I attended. I lived on campus for the first few years. By the end of my sophomore year, I moved off campus into a small house a few miles away with three other friends.
That’s right, that made four of us, who divided a $600/month rent.
Add in the occasional romantic interest and a Saturday night would routinely have eight of us sleeping there. Cramped quarters for sure! There were countless nights of bonfires, outdoor parties, and work on cars in the grassy “driveway”.
I’ll never forget the first time my parents visited that place. Even as a pair of old hippies—I think they were mortified by the living conditions.
But, I had a blast!
We had space to have a good time, and generally no one to bother you. It was a stark contrast to campus living or the suburbia I grew up in.
Jenni and I made the jump to our current city in 2013. What would seven years of experience in urban Virginia offer as a counterpoint to the Frugalwoods’ rural Vermont love?
Urban vs. Rural Living
Following the Frugalwoods’ lead, I’m going to break this down into about a dozen categories and comparison points.
1) Urban vs. downtown
There’s a big difference between a dense city center with skyscrapers where everyone takes public transit and the urban life we lead. We don’t live in Tokyo, London, or NYC. Our city has an improving bus system, but aside from Amtrak, there’s no local train system.
We own an attached townhouse-style home. We have a little porch and back patio. There’s parking for Jenni and a garage for my toy. But, we don’t have a yard to speak of.
Within our neighborhood, yards are small enough that many people just turn them into rock gardens or brick them over for a larger patio. There’s a five-story apartment building every block or two.
It’s not “downtown”.
I’m not suggesting that a high-density downtown experience is better or worse. It’s different.
There are some key differences between the two as I see it:
- While the roads have a low speed limit here, traffic isn’t much of an issue
- There’s plenty of trees and greenery in the right-of-way or sidewalk medians—it’s very green
- Parking can be a pain to find, but it’s typically free, and usually just on the street shoulder
- Typical middle-class career workers can afford a multi-bedroom row house, townhouse, or condo
- While lawns are very small, they’re big enough for many people to have lovely front and/or rear gardens—it’s not a concrete jungle
- The air remains reasonably clean and breathable
- While you routinely bump into people (edit: in the days of a pandemic, avoid people by walking in the right-of-way), sidewalks aren’t so packed that you’d have any trouble going for a jog
- Noise isn’t so bad that you have trouble sleeping due to traffic, neighbors, or industry
Whether you’re looking at the true urban core of a city or the outskirts of that urban core like where we are, you won’t have any trouble finding all the things you could possibly need.
Of course one of the biggest components of downtown vs. urban comparison is cost. While we can’t get quite the value for our money in terms of square footage and land as a suburban or rural person could, we think we’ve managed to keep our housing costs relatively low.
We bought our current place which has 1,250 square feet plus a 300 square foot finished attic for about $230,000 in 2013. That’s not something we could find in two miles down the road in the heart of the city.
Having access to your heart’s desire within a short distance is easily one of the greatest benefits of urban life when making a rural comparison.
2) All your wants and needs are a walk away
We have access to an incredible diversity of entertainment, culture, and shopping within a half-mile walk of our place. A high walkability score (91 at the time of writing!) was a key component of our decision making to live where we are.
Within that 10-15 minute walk, we can find all sorts of ways to spend our money:
- Arts museum with a huge free collection, award-winning restaurant and pub, rotating bi-annual international exhibits, educational opportunities for kids and adults, and a stunning sculpture garden
- History museum sprawling Virginia’s long and storied past, keeping up with the dramatic changes our city is seeing, featuring bi-annual special exhibits and educational opportunities
- A historic commercial area with:
- Dozens of local sellers with everything from a dingy record shop to high-end fashion
- Every personal service you could imagine: barber, salon, nails, dentist, doctor, vet, massage, physical therapy
- A second-run movie theater with cheap films, showcases, and performances
- Scattered around the neighborhood there are plenty of restaurants, fast food joints, coffee shops, bars—Yelp suggests there’s about 40
- Three major grocery stores with a fourth being rebuilt, making it easy to buy just what we need
- About half a dozen bodegas or small markets plus a couple of 7-11s
We also wanted to have easy access to public services in this same half-mile radius. Our city offers a wealth of community safety, education, and care services.
- Fire Station
- Community Center
- Community Garden
- Tennis Courts, Basketball Courts, Soccer Fields
- K-12 Schools
Of course, there’s also plenty of specialty services, religious buildings, banks, urgent care, and random small businesses thrown in there, too. This is all within roughly a 10-15 minute half-mile walk!
Having access to a wide variety of public services, culture, education, and entertainment within a short distance has helped build our position of financial strength. We don’t have to closely evaluate the cost of transportation or the time it takes to get what we need or want.
We could quite reasonably—even happily—never drive a car and access everything we need within this small radius of our home.
3) Competition means change and variety
When Jenni and I go for a walk around our neighborhood, and especially through the historic shopping area I mentioned, we constantly see new places to visit. There’s significant competition for retail space so new businesses are popping up to replace ones that have gone under as trends or fashion change.
We’re not stuck with having only one plumber in town who you have to work with even if you don’t like them or they’re no good at their job.
There’s enough population density to support multiple people working in the same specialty that wind up competing with each other. That’s good for us as consumers as businesses innovate and bring the latest improvements to their niches quickly to market.
4) A college town
Within 5 miles of our place, there are three universities with 4-year programs. One is close enough that I frequently jog through the campus on my running route.
The universities keep fresh ideas coming into the city along with money. The university nearest us has rehabbed countless buildings downtown as their campus expands, reinvigorating blighted areas. They claim to have brought multiple billions of dollars of economic impact and nearly 50,000 jobs to the city. Aside from the macro benefits a large school brings, the university also funds or manages:
- A theater with student performances of historic stories and new modern works at a low cost
- Health and dental clinics that are partly operated by students still learning their specialties at a low cost
- A massive contemporary art building with rotating student exhibits open to the public
- Well-maintained green spaces and public squares
- Sports centers for college athletic programs bringing entertaining game days
Personally, I think one of my favorite benefits of living in an urban college town is simply that the population skews younger.
There’s a vibrancy and energy that college students bring.
It supports turnover and change. It stands as a contrast to the nature of Virginia, building upon centuries of American history with new interpretations of the past.
Of course, the opposite side of that is that things change frequently. Your favorite spot can get replaced pretty quickly!
Historical icons end up seen with a new lens that might just turn the tide against them.
5) Are you OK with all the people?
Even though we happen to live in a city that has a large park system, we’d have to travel a good 30-45 minutes by car until we could reliably be in a wide-open space where we wouldn’t see or hear another human.
Working from home, one of my favorite mid-day breaks has been to go our largest city park system. It’s a stunning wooded area along a body of water with long run, hike, or bike routes.
While the park system has some 550 acres and 22 miles of primary trails, it’s still somehow right in the middle of the city.
Hiking along a densely wooded trail on a random Tuesday at 2 PM, I usually see a handful of people in passing. The din of the city is still audible: traffic and trains pass closer in certain areas.
We’d have to get in a car to really escape to solitude.
6) Become a specialist
Having access to a wide variety of services and other experts nearby in an urban area means you should really consider embracing becoming a specialist. While living out in the sticks means you have to know how to handle the basics of fixing everything that could go wrong, it’s really the opposite in the city. There’s someone else nearby who knows how to fix everything better than you could if you tried to be a generalist and do it all.
A jack of all trades, a master of none.
Find the masters
Living in the city lets you leverage all the masters around you. Of course, hiring them can cost a pretty penny. If you don’t particularly like the activity and enjoy your work, why not “trade” your time in that way?
I can handle basic handyman activities. But when it came to replacing a second story downspout, repairing the gutter connection, and installing gutter guards, I’d be in for a lot of learning and tool buying to do it myself. I imagine that’d take me a few days of labor and traveling store-to-store to buy the appropriate hardware and tools. My work would presumably be a bit lower quality than that of a pro, too.
Instead, I hired the work out to a known contractor with good reviews. I came around to learn a bit about what he was doing and made an observation here and there to understand it, but generally stayed out of the way. Instead, I worked on a few paying projects while he was out there doing the hard work.
After visiting to do an initial review and identify the materials he would need, he had the work done in an afternoon. He had a pickup truck to haul off the old material—something my little sports car wouldn’t have liked—and all the other tools he needed to get the job done quickly.
Be free to do what you do best
Instead of multiple days of hard work on my part with a questionable outcome, I spent a day earning enough money to pay him for his work in the comfort of my own home doing what I specialize in.
That’s economically more efficient for both of us: we’re doing what we each do best!
7) Less to maintain and service
As resources are more scarce in a city, they tend to be more costly. The effect is that we learn to live with less. We have a smaller house and less land than we could afford in the country.
But, the upshot is that we have less to worry about.
One full bathroom instead of multiple means having to caulk only one tub every couple of years (it’s humid here!). It means having to redesign and maintain fewer rooms. We don’t have a barn full of tools because we don’t have to maintain a big plot of land.
Less space means lower heating and cooling costs, too!
There’s no septic system to worry about. In fact, in our personal situation, we don’t even have a boiler or heating system to worry about. Hot water (which drives the radiant heat as well) is provided by the community we live in from a commercial-grade boiler.
Of course, we indirectly pay for that through high HOA fees. More on that in the next point.
8) Sharing in a community
Our HOA fee, a frequent source of questions in our monthly expense reports, is $350. It’s a lot of money, especially considering our actual mortgage payment is under $900. The fee is handled by our neighborhood’s volunteer, owner-run association. It’s used to pay for utility and maintenance expenses as well as upkeep of common areas. That means we don’t have a separate fee for water, heating, landscaping, pest prevention, gutter cleaning, trash removal, and a few other maintenance tasks.
Our community just finished installing in-ground, connected LED lighting along all the footpaths to the homes. That was paid for by our monthly fees, built-up over time. A few years ago, an automated in-ground sprinkler system was installed.
We’re fortunate to get along well with our neighbors, but there’s a downside to these shared expenses that is exemplified throughout the urban environment. It’s the downside of a shared community.
The tragedy of the commons
Because our flat HOA fee covers our utility expenses for heating and water, there’s no financial incentive for us or our neighbors to efficiently use the related resources. I’ll share a related anecdote as to why this is a problem.
Typically, I’m pretty quick to respond to maintenance issues that cause a rising longterm expense. Our main bathroom’s toilet started running a few times per day months ago. After a week or two, I finally remembered to order a new flapper, assuming that was the problem. I replaced it, no dice. It still ran. It kept running for months, I’m sad to admit.
I don’t like to waste water (or at least the energy required to repump it). I certainly don’t want to waste money on the water bill itself, but, hey my neighbors all paid for the minor increase. There was no direct financial incentive for us to fix the problem. And I knew it’d be a pain to figure out what the problem was.
Eventually, I got off my butt and figured out that the flapper wasn’t making quite the perfect seal against the outlet pipe in the tank. I bought a two-dollar gasket that fits around the pipe, making a larger surface area for the flapper to seat against and…boom.
I’m certain I would have repaired this more quickly had I seen a rising water bill. And this is coming from someone acutely aware of and sensitive to cost increases! That’s the problem with shared costs where individual users can’t see their impact.
As another example, I know our attic is poorly insulated. But I’m assuming it’d cost thousands of dollars to have that insulation repaired, replaced, and improved. We’d reap a minor improvement from our cooling costs since we pay the electric bill directly, but the bulk of the improvement would be for heating. Our community pays the heating bill through our HOA fee.
Jenni and I aren’t incentivized to fix this insulation issue in an economically efficient way. Judging by how the snow melts off the roofs around our community in dramatically different ways, I’d guess we’re not the only ones with poor insulation.
I’ve talked with our HOA about simply having the community pay to improve the insulation for all the homes. I suggested we could just share the cost, too. Either way, it makes economic sense to do so as a whole community.
Naturally, at an individual level, people don’t want to end up paying to have this insulation installed for only certain homes though.
The inefficient insulation problem remains unsolved.
When you live in a rural home, totally dependent on yourself, and able to directly reap the benefits of your improvements, you’re more motivated to complete them.
The tragedy of the commons in action!
Divvying up resources
Of course, a similar problem occurs with loads of shared resources around a city. Infrastructure is underinvested in and funds are argued over.
- Why should my taxes go to pay for your bike route when I drive a car?
- Why should I have to pay for an increased property tax which mostly goes to schools when I have no kids?
- The new building project should go to MY neighborhood for those sweet investment dollars!
We often don’t see the forest for the trees. We look at our individual situations and want what’s best for us rather than the community.
That’s pretty natural for a human.
But, it does create a problem in a city where we organize like a collective. Rural life is much more independent.
Ignoring the financial side, it’s even a problem at a moral level. It’s why there’s a “pick up after your pet” sign on nearly every block. People don’t think their individual actions matter (they generally don’t), but they sure do when enough people think they don’t.
Your dog couldn’t crap enough on 66 acres in Vermont for it ever to become a real problem.
9) Environmental efficiency
It’s simply more resource-efficient for people to live in a city due to the distance between places people travel and their physical footprint. From a collectivist point of view, it’s way more resource-intensive to live in a rural area, all else being equal (spoiler: it’s often not—keep reading).
The primary drivers of your carbon footprint as an individual are energy usage and transportation. Both of these factors are driven higher by rural living.
You have to travel much larger distances to get routine tasks done like grocery shopping or visiting a doctor. That’s usually done with a car where, in urban environments, you can often walk, bike, or use public transportation.
Dollar for dollar, you can buy more house in rural areas than urban typically. That’s more to heat and cool, more energy used.
Speaking of heating: what about heating with firewood?
I can’t claim to be an expert here, and there seems to be some reasonable debate over this topic. On the one hand, if at an individual level, you were to replant all felled trees used for heating, and you transported those trees in a low carbon footprint way (i.e. they’re on your property), it’s reasonable to assume that the net emissions would be less than that of using natural gas.
However, this doesn’t account for one key component: where those emissions are going. If you’re heating with wood, those emissions are likely being output through a chimney from your home. The particulates are going to hang around locally, and as much improved as modern wood stoves have become, they’re far from perfect.
I think there’s room to argue that transporting energy consumption and the resultant emissions from a city to the suburbs or rural areas where power plants are is a bit immoral, though.
All else is not equal
I opened this section under the guise that rural resource consumption is higher than urban “all else being equal”. In practice, “all else” doesn’t tend to be equal.
Rural living tends to have more self-reliant, DIY folks. They also tend to follow trends less and have less disposable income. City dwellers, on the other hand, keep up with the latest and greatest while having more money to spend. That results in greater electronic and fashion waste.
While the robot version of humanity may be more environmentally efficient in cities, the real humanity somehow manages to outwit the inherent advantages to urban life all too often.
Owning large amounts of land
Ultimately, it’s infeasible for all 330 million Americans to live on 66 acres like the Frugalwoods. If the US average household size is 2.6 people, that’d require about 8.4 billion acres of land for each household to have 66 acres.
The total land area of the United States is 2.4 billion acres.
The numbers look even worse from a global perspective as the US has a below-average population density.
10) Access to city services and utilities
I can count on one hand how many times the power, water, or other utilities have been out since we’ve lived here.
As the city provides us with the means to heat our homes, power our gadgets, and keep us watered, we don’t have to worry about manually transporting or maintaining these fueling systems.
- There’s no oil tank to refill, we have ready access to a gas line for cooking
- Water is shuffled away via massive sewer and wastewater systems
- Electricity is delivered directly via the city grid
- City services pick up the trash and recycling for us, frequently
We could hook up a solar array to the grid if we wanted. We don’t have to worry about trips to the dump. There are even routine heavy materials and electronic waste removal days.
As I mentioned before, we’ve got a great park system nearby that the city maintains. They’ve also been expanding the bike routes. We live on a bike route with great access (a Bike Score of 82 at the time of writing). It’s an easy ride around our neighborhood and about 2 miles along a residential route with sharrows to reach downtown.
Bike routes run from downtown to other cities. We could make a trek a solid 55 miles on a single bike route, mostly separated from traffic, passing through different neighboring cities.
We have multiple high-speed internet providers to choose from. They compete with each other, which is one way we manage to get 100mbps for just $40/month. Our ISP even provides access to its mesh wireless network that blankets the city. Staying on WiFi makes it much easier to use cheap cell phone MNVO providers to keep my cell bill at under $4/month. It also means we can more easily take a laptop or tablet out on a walk and continue to have internet access for work or fun.
I like to play the occasional video game with some old buddies and I’m sure glad I’m not trying to do that on a satellite dish internet connection or over a cell signal.
Speaking of connectivity, all the major cell providers have a presence here as they do in most urban environments. Using Google Voice to host our primary cell numbers, we can easily swap to different SIM cards as new promos come around and just forward our calls to the new SIM’s number. It makes it easy to try different technologies as they come about (like when LTE was becoming prevalent).
Having communication service options lets us be picky and competition yields improvement while keeping cost low.
11) The city as your living room
I think an under-appreciated aspect of living in a city is just what you’re paying for. NYC gets a bad rep for its housing cost, but I think it’s reasonable to make an argument that they’re not paying $4k/month for just a 700 square foot apartment.
They’re paying to be in that city.
You’ve got to love that city because what you’re buying is access to it.
I shared my experience with costly lifestyle creep in one of the most expensive metro areas of the US. You have to be very cognizant of what you’re paying for when you look into the high cost-of-living cities.
The local bar is where you get together to watch TV and chill out with friends.
The bodega is your pantry.
Your living room is the city.
You can’t be a homebody, otherwise, why not live somewhere else if you’re just going to stay inside anyway?
12) Little fish in an ocean
As opposed to being a big fish in a pond, it’s hard to have much of an impact on a city. You become just a number, one of many members of the community. If you’re thinking about volunteering in the city, you’re not going to be the only one.
In fact, you may find there’s a volunteer list for the food pantry or shelter. There are loads of people already ahead of you wanting to help.
The flip side of this is that, when you can have a direct impact, it can be on a much larger population. You may not develop quite the same one-on-one relationship you would when starting a food pantry in a rural place with a low population, but you could be turning the tide of an entire neighborhood for generations.
If you’re happier about making quantitive change across an environment versus qualitative change for the individual, an urban environment may be the place to focus your energies.
13) Transient nature of a city
While Jenni and I don’t have much trouble making friends and keeping enough relationships to create a socially healthy atmosphere, cities, in general, are quite transient. They’re also packed with entertainment and things to do.
Our local connections change as people leave the city to settle more permanently as they age. Frequently, other couples wanting to have kids will move out of the city in search of more space and better (or at least, less expensive) schools.
Businesses grow and change hands, sending some connections off to new cities for new opportunities.
All the entertainment and things to do around the city mean that people’s schedules tend to be pretty full. Sometimes that makes it a little harder to set aside time for friends as we’re less dependent on each other for amusement.
Rural life can build stronger bonds as interactions seem to be more necessary.
14) An easy commute
While I’ve worked remotely since 2012, Jenni has a commute. Since 2013, her commute has been 2.5 miles each way. That’s short enough, and mostly through residential neighborhoods, that she’s made the commute by bike many times.
The commute takes about the same amount of time by car as by bike.
Many friends and family commute an hour or more from the suburbs into the city. It’s always boggled my mind that people can become accustomed to, even accepting, of losing two or more hours of their day to commuting. Not to mention the tremendous financial cost to maintaining and replacing a vehicle to keep pace with that commute.
Of course, this issue is greatly reduced once that daily commute for work is gone. That alone can be a big motivation for FIRE!
15) Give the urban life a shot
Recently, Jenni and I have had multiple friends and family members move to the metro region of our city. It was all a bit of a coincidence, but it has been an opportunity to see how different folks approach making that jump.
Some went all-in from afar, deciding to purchase land from a distance after making a short visit and then building their own place. Others decided to rent a place within the metro area for a year, get a feel for the region, and then decided to buy a home. Still, others simply made their decision based on where existing friends lived and moved into the same community, mostly ignoring other aspects.
People take very different approaches to deciding where to live and what’s important.
My strongest piece of advice would be to simply try-before-you-buy.
We’ve long thought about moving to different areas of the US and internationally, even as happy as we are with our current home. We’d do see by visiting for a few weeks first. After that, we’d envision living there for a handful of months via a short-term rental to see what it’s like on a normal day-to-day basis once the novelty has worn off. Not until then would we consider making a permanent move and possibly purchasing real estate.
If you’re thinking about making the jump from rural to urban or the reverse, look into at least spending some significant time there. You may think you know an area, but it could be pretty different at night or around certain holidays. Look into a longer term AirBNB rental and really get a feel for local life. Even if that’s more expensive on a daily basis, it’ll be a lot cheaper than turning your life upside down and realizing you’re not happy in your new home after moving.
Be happy wherever you are
Since leaving undergrad, aside from the exceptionally remote experience living in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps, I’ve mostly lived in pretty urban circumstances. Jenni and I been very happy about that. With both of us working, it’s made a lot of sense to have easy access to shopping and entertainment for when we have time available.
While I’ve taken the Frugalwood’s recent post about living in the country as an opportunity to compare it to our urban life, the purpose wasn’t to declare one better than the other. Really, they’re just different options and suit certain people better depending on their circumstances and preferences.
As Jenni has gone part-time and I’ve reduced my work to a handful of hours per week, a new world of living possibilities is opening to us. As we continue the march into early retirement, we might just end up with a very different idea of home.
No matter what, our goal is to be happy with where we are.
What’s your neighborhood like, more rural or urban?
What are some of the pros and cons you’ve noticed?