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City vs. Suburb: What’s Cheaper?

Houses perched on edge of coastal sea cliff. West toward Sydney city on the horizon
Andrew Merry/ Getty Images

As if you didn’t have enough to think about when choosing an apartment, you may also need to decide whether to live in the city or a nearby suburb. City vs. suburb is an age-old question whose longevity is contributed to by the fact cities tend to go through multiple cycles of growth, decline, and renewal throughout their lifetimes.

In the early 2010s, the “return to the city” was hyped, as everyone from young adults to senior citizens took to the urban cores. But the love affair didn’t last long. According to Pew research data, by 2018, roughly 175 million people lived in the suburbs, while 98 million lived in urban cores.

The suburbs were once again growing at a faster rate than cities then, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated suburban growth. In fact, CNBC notes that in May 2020, when the real estate market began its slow recovery, home searches in the suburbs rose twice as much as home searches in big cities.

Yet the cities continue to offer tremendous advantages for some people, especially once a COVID-19 vaccine is approved and widely deployed. Are you trying to decide on city vs. suburb living? Here is what you need to know about urban vs. suburban advantages and disadvantages.

A case for suburbia

What is a suburb, and what benefits does it bring to the battle between urban vs. suburban living? Merriam-Webster defines a suburb as “an outlying part of a city or town,” or “a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city.” Colloquially, suburbs are sometimes known as “bedroom communities” – residential areas filled with single-family homes, fenced backyards, and plenty of open space. Apartments in suburbia tend to be lower density than those in urban cores. Why would anyone choose to live in the suburbs?

Space

The pandemic made even the most ardent city dwellers think twice about spending their lives in small apartments in crowded cities. With lower population density and wide-open spaces, the suburbs are highly attractive to many buyers and renters.

Affordability

While there are always exceptions, as a general rule, you can get more square footage for less money in the suburbs than in major cities. This holds true whether you’re renting or buying, and whether you’re looking at houses, condos, or apartments.

Amenities

At one time, suburbanites had to drive to the city to find things to do. Many modern suburbs, though, are planned communities. You may find farmer’s markets, retail stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues clustered in highly walkable areas close to home. Some luxury apartment complexes, even in the suburbs, have quite a few amenities on site.

Nature

It is true that many cities are dotted with designated green spaces. But for nature lovers, nothing beats being surrounded by trees and grass wherever you go. Many homes in the suburbs have yards, and a lot of apartments have patios or balconies overlooking well-kept landscaping.

Safety

City crime has been steadily declining for years, but those who are concerned about safety often choose gated communities in the suburbs. Even outside of gated communities, overall crime rates tend to be lower in the suburbs than in the inner city.

A case for city living

Suburbs have a lot to offer, but so do the cities. As Huey Lewis pointed out in The Heart of Rock and Roll, “Where else can you do a half a million things, all at a quarter to three?” Here are some areas in which cities clearly have the advantage in the city vs. suburb debate.

Public transportation

Though suburbs are starting to offer some walkable areas, and some offer transit connections to the city, suburbs simply can’t compete when it comes to the ease of getting around. Most urban cores are highly walkable and bikeable –– and harder to park in if you drove from the suburbs. City apartments offer a variety of public transportation options, and rideshares tend to be easier and faster to come by in cities than in suburbs.

Deliveries

While online shopping has somewhat leveled the playing field, cities remain the place to be for those who like having things delivered. In the city, you’ll likely have a range of grocery and restaurant delivery services to choose from, as well as local corner stores and independent retailers. Whereas in the suburbs, you run the risk of being outside multiple delivery radii.

24-hour entertainment

Even suburbs with planned shopping districts tend to roll up the sidewalks before dark. In the city, your only problem will be making sure you remember to sleep. Whether your tastes run to live music, movies, bars, or coffeehouses, most cities are thriving 24 hours a day.

Diversity

Cities are cultural melting pots, and this is reflected in the food and entertainment options, as well as in the faces of your neighbors. Want to sample Ethiopian cuisine, take in a Bollywood film, and end the night at a Jewish deli? You’ll have far better luck in a city. Most cities are highly diverse, while many suburbs are still stubbornly white and upper-middle class.

Anonymity

In a suburb, odds are good that for better or worse, you will know everyone and everyone will know you. Those who prefer to carefully choose their friends and otherwise disappear into a sea of strangers may be far more comfortable with the anonymity that a big city provides.

The bottom line 

The suburbs were already growing faster than the cities, and then COVID-19 upended life as we know it, prompting many city dwellers to flee for the suburbs. If temporary work-from-home policies become permanent, some portion of city dwellers may decide to remain in the suburbs indefinitely. Yet suburban life is not for everyone.

Are you trying to decide between city vs. suburb life? Both have definite advantages and disadvantages for renters as well as homebuyers. Suburbs offer space, affordability, and easier access to nature, while cities provide diversity, anonymity, nightlife, and convenience. Think about your lifestyle and habits, as well as the things that matter most to you, and you will soon discover whether city vs. suburb living is right for you.


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