Now that I’ve lived in Oaxaca for a few months, I’m starting to think about future locations. I’m glad I came here this year and I haven’t ruled out returning at some point, but I think I’d like to try some U.S. locations in 2014.
For a summary of what it’s been like living here, see my last post: Living in Oaxaca, what it’s like for me.
I now have a renewed appreciation of the convenient infrastructure of the U.S. Here are some things I’m looking forward to:
- drinkable tap water
- reliable internet
- convenient shopping (i.e., Trader Joe’s)
- speaking in my native language
- paying for most things with credit cards (so I can earn more frequent flyer points… see my post about “travel hacking“)
- a good selection of indie films (one of my favorite things to do for fun)
- discounts on electronics, and being able to have things shipped cheaply from Amazon
- being able to stream Netflix or Pandora without needing to use a VPN service. (I use and like Tunnel Bear, but it can slow down your connection).
Advantages of being location-flexible
I really like the advantages that working online gives me:
- I don’t need to stay in one place year-round.
- I don’t need to worry about commuting to a job (traffic jams or inconvenient public transportation).
- When I go to visit friends or relatives, or attend a conference, I can stay as long as I like in that part of the country. For example, I’m speaking at a conference in Monterey, CA at the end of October, and instead of getting a hotel for three nights, I’ve rented a small cottage via AirBNB for a whole month. And of course, any vacations I plan aren’t limited by how much time I can take off work.
What I’m looking for in a place to live – possible?
Last year, before I came to Mexico and right before I left my job, I researched places to live in the U.S.
- walkable and bikeable (It’s great not owning a car!)
- affordable rents (at least less than Boston!)
- non-extreme weather (not too hot or too cold for too long)
- interesting arts & culture (indie films, indie bookstores, good coffee shops, parks, museums, music, etc.)
After a LOT of research I realized that it’s nearly impossible to have all four of those criteria. There are places with three, but not all four characteristics. Places that have great weather, interesting arts & culture, and good walkability are places that many people want to live in, which drives up the rents! I could sacrifice weather and go to interesting smaller places, such as Madison, WI, or Burlington, VT, but I wanted to see if I could find all of these qualities. (and be away from a long winter for the first time in my life!)
That’s what led me to look internationally. Oaxaca has been great for these qualities. It’s full of interesting culture, nice cafes, museums, art, music, it’s very walkable, cheap, and the weather (except for April/May when it’s too hot), is great! But there are other downsides, which I discussed in my last post.
Best sites for researching U.S. cities
There are some really good websites for researching where to live in the U.S. Here are my favorites:
- Walkscore – neighborhoods rated by how easy it is to walk to places you want and need to go to
- City-Data.com – especially their forums where people talk about what it’s like in their cities
- Sperling’s Best Places – great site for comparing two cities on many factors, such as income tax, weather, etc.
- Craigslist apartment listings, and sites based on Craigslist, such as Padmapper (view Craigslist apartments by map) – remember to watch out for spam listings!
- Rentbits rental price comparison tool – median and averages rents for cities, great for relative cost comparisons
- AirBNB – great for seeing the interiors of many people’s living spaces in a particular city (usually well-photographed by their professional photographers)
- Monthly weather averages for various cities – I like the charts on About.com. (of course these days the weather never seems average!)
- Sites that come up from various Google searches – U.S. cities with the best weather, 20 Best Cities in America to be Young, Broke and Single, 10 Cheapest Places to Live in the U.S., and more.
I noticed two things:
1. Neighborhoods matter more than cities. A different neighborhood in the same city can be as different as another city. For example, when I lived in Davis Square, Somerville and then moved to the South End of Boston, I felt like I was in a completely different city.
So in my research I started focusing on learning about neighborhoods, rather than whole cities. I appreciate articles like this one, that describes different neighborhoods in detail: Portland’s Hottest Microhoods. The book series, “Newcomer’s Handbook for Moving to and Living in….” is great for neighborhood descriptions. Here’s one for Portland: Newcomer’s Handbook for Moving to and Living in Portland.
These books are great for neighborhood descriptions:
- Newcomer’s Handbook for Moving to and Living in Los Angeles
- Newcomer’s Guide to Moving to and Living in Portland
- Newcomer’s Guide to Moving to and Living in Seattle
2. Being location-independent changes many things. Most advice and stats about where to live are based on factors that don’t apply if your work is location-flexible. Conventional advice is usually about commuting distance from your job, where to buy a house, what the weather is like year-round, how to find good schools for your kids, etc. None of that applies to me.
Changing cities seasonally
Of course one answer to the weather problem is to live in different places at different times of year. There are barriers though, if you want to live simply and frugally. Most landlords want a 12-month lease. Owning a place that you can rent requires care-taking and maintenance, which costs money. But things are changing with possibilities like micro-apartments, open source housing, and AirBNB rentals (more on these in a future post).
Living cheaply in expensive cities
So next I started googling phrases like, “living cheaply in expensive cites.” I found some interesting articles. Since my way of life is cheaper anyway (vegetarian, car-free, no kids), I think it’s possible to find a way to have good quality of life without spending too much.
- 5 Reasons California is cheaper than it appears
- The Perfect $46,000 Budget: Learning to Live in California for Under $50,000.
- The Best Place For An Online Entrepreneur To Live And Work – (Hawaii? I was surprised!)
- Book: The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Seattle – this fun & useful series is available for several different cities. I read the Boston and New York versions a few years ago.
These contained many good points. When the weather is nice, you spend less on utilities. When you live near natural beauty, there is a lot to do that’s free (hiking, biking, etc). And when you can cut out entirely the cost of cars and commuting, things get a lot cheaper! I eat mostly fresh fruit and veggies from farmer’s markets, plus a few convenience items from Trader Joe’s. I’m vegetarian, which can also be cheaper.
So the idea of living in cities like Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle appeals to me. LA in the winter, Seattle or Portland in the summer? Sounds like a good mix. I’m ready for a change after living in the Boston area my whole adult life.
Considering midwestern cities: Omaha, Nebraska
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. After I finished college (at St. Olaf, in Minnesota), I was eager to move to Boston or another east-coast city. I went back to Omaha for two years after college, and then moved to Boston for grad school, where I ended up living for my whole adult life (I spent two years living on Martha’s Vineyard as well).
Last year I thought about moving back to Omaha for a while as a way to save money. Three things stopped me: I would need a car, the weather has extremes of hot and cold, and it lacks the kinds of artsy, walkable neighborhoods that I like (I thought).
But, after looking at it again, I’m changing my mind. Here’s why.
Omaha has changed over the years. It has some walkable neighborhoods. A bike-sharing program has begun. There are interesting artsy things happening, including a good independent movie theater, interesting art galleries and museums, indie music, vegan groups, really good farmer’s markets, nice coffee shops, and interesting renovated buildings that have been turned into apartments, (more interesting apartments). And in addition to their few Zipcar locations (at two local universities), Hertz is starting to roll out a car-sharing service nation-wide, with one location in Omaha right now that has shareable cars, and more locations promised in 2014. There are co-working spaces, environmental design groups, blogs for entrepreneurs, and an annual conference on innovation and entrepreneurship.
More on Omaha’s culture and neighborhoods:
- The Dundee Neighborhood – Best Old House Neighborhoods (This Old House)
- A newcomer’s thoughts on Omaha’s urban landscape
- Best Value Cities: Omaha, NE – Kiplinger
- Stats and articles about Omaha – Atlantic Cities
- The Blog Igniting Omaha’s Tech Scene
- New downtown Omaha condos aim for creative types
- The Old Market arts & entertainment district
Did you know that you can get a really nice one-bedroom or studio apartment for between $400 and $800 a month? I’ve also seen two-bedrooms for as low as $600. (I used to pay $1,250 for a tiny studio apartment in Somerville – Boston area. Before that I paid $2,000/month for my condo’s mortgage– still paying, but rental income covers it). I’m thinking that perhaps I could live in Omaha for half the year next year (April – September). It would be fun to be near my sister, my cousins, and my best friend from high school. I usually visit them once a year, but it would be nice to stay there for a while. I could try a car-free experiment in a walkable neighborhood, and also borrow my sister’s car from time to time. I’m very familiar with Omaha neighborhoods, since I grew up there and have visited every year since. I’m planning to visit for a week or so this October to look at some apartments in person and walk around the neighborhoods I’m considering.
It’s not only the low cost of living that appeals to me, but maybe Omaha is a place where there can be more support for creative work. Is this part of a larger trend, as described in the article below?
- Lena Dunham Wants Brooklyn to Be More Like Chattanooga – not about Omaha, but about leaving expensive cites for smaller ones. (A fellow creative librarian is quoted here).
Where to live in the winter
If I live in Omaha for part of next year, it would probably be from April-September (six-month leases are possible in certain apartments). I really don’t want to live there during the winter. So I researched places with better winter weather and narrowed it down to either Florida or Los Angeles. (I even considered Hawaii for a little while after reading “Best place for an online entrepreneur to live and work”, and the book, Moving to Hawaii: a Step-by-Step Guide).
There are lots of interesting articles comparing Miami to LA. Miami wins for cleaner air, lower costs, and lush tropical vegetation. LA wins for less humidity, panoramic views, and being “the mecca of cinema.” And believe it or not, there are some walkable neighborhoods in LA. (and in Florida!) I even found two books about going car-free in LA (see below). If I could find a neighborhood with easy walks to cafes, bookstores, groceries, farmer’s market, movie theater for indie films, I’d be set! I could always use Zipcar for a special trip to other neighborhoods and there is also a metro rail system that is expanding. Of course, LA is a great place for a film-lover, with so many indie films showing. It’s also great for vegetarians. The higher rents would be offset by living in Omaha with low rents for part of the year.
More about not owning a car in L.A. – Many people are writing about this!
- L.A. is a Top American City For Living Car-Free?
- Book: Car-Free Los Angeles and Southern California
- Book: L.A. Adventures: Eclectic Day Trips by Metro Rail Through Los Angeles and Beyond
- I lived in LA for 8 years without a car, and you can too
- Why I Still Don’t Need (Or Want) a Car in L.A.
- I Am Car-Less in Los Angeles
- Rail Planners Aim To Re-‘Train’ L.A.’s Car Culture
- The City of the Future: Can Los Angeles Reinvent Itself All Over Again? – excellent article, last half is about public transportation and how it’s improving
- LA Metro: Your Guide to Los Angeles by Rail
- Metro Adventures: What To Do On The Red Line (Part 1)
Florida – Interesting info about walkable neighborhoods in Florida.
- The Best Historic Neighborhoods in Florida
- Thorton Park neighborhood in Orland, FL
- City Face-Off: Winner, Los Angeles – comparing Miami and LA
Trying out different cities
So here’s my idea. Using AirBNB, I could find a some short-term rentals during January, February and March. I’d like to test living in different neighborhoods of LA (see above). I’m also curious about Portland and Seattle for the following year (to replace Omaha summers). Maybe I could also try them out in the spring, before I go to Omaha.
There is nothing like visiting places in person (in the abstract it always seems different). Before I came to Oaxaca, I reserved an apartment online for a month. I debated about how long to reserve it for and somehow it felt safest to have a whole month to look for something better (plus the monthly rate was more cost-effective). It turns our the place was nice, but noisy! I found a better place fairly soon, moved out two weeks early, and wasn’t able get my money back for the second half of the month.
So now I’ve learned to book something for only a short time sight-unseen. I want to visit places in person before choosing a place where I’ll live for more than 2 weeks (even if it’s just for a month or two).
AirBNB makes this easier, since I can choose to live with or in close touch with locals who can introduce me to life in their city, I don’t have to buy furniture, I can pay rent with a credit card (more frequent flyer points!), and the AirBNB reputation system handles the trust issues of living with strangers (ratings, reviews, ID verification, a payment system, etc).
I’d love to try out these west coast locations. I have visited all three in the past for very short amounts of time, but this will give me the experience of living in each place for a while. If I end up liking them, I could go back in October (to LA first, for the winter), after my six months in Omaha. If not, there is always Mexico again! Or Hawaii! I have enough frequent flyer points to cover all these trips, thanks to travel hacking!
AirBNB and Zipcar are examples of the “sharing economy,” and “collaborative consumption.” I’m very interested in these trends because they are making my location-flexible life easier! I think more people will live and work this way in the future.
Here are two of my favorite sites about the sharing economy and living with less stuff:
- Shareable: sharing by design
- Life Edited – Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.
I’m realizing that I prefer access to ownership for most parts of my life! I’ll write about why in a future post.
p.s. If you’re not familiar with AirBNB, here’s their FAQ: What is AirBNB?