There is no shortage of heated, seemingly eternal debates: Democrat or Republican? Apple or Samsung? Boxers or briefs? Team Edward or Team Jacob (ask some tweens…)? But through it all, one quandary reigns supreme:
Should you live in the city or the suburbs?
And cutting to the chase for homeowners: Which option offers the better long-term investment?
Since the rise of the American suburbs in the mid-20th century, there’s been a growing divide between the glamour, pace and possibilities of city life and the safety, serenity and family-friendliness of suburban life—and the homeowners who are attracted to each.
In 2012, the Associated Press reported that for the first time in a century America’s largest cities were growing faster than their suburbs. But three years later, in 2015, the Brookings Institute showed that city population growth, while still on the rise, appeared to be slowing.
Here at realtor.com®, we believe that home is where the heart is—whether in a split-level ranch house in a sweet township or a converted warehouse loft in an emerging urban neighborhood. But every romance needs a solid foundation, and in the case of real estate it’s the value of your financial investment. Where, we wondered, are homes holding their value best?
We sent our data team to find out. To differentiate between city and suburbs, we relied on Nielsen’s population density data. We then compared home prices in January, from our own listings, with those one year ago. And to round out the picture, we evaluated the most-mentioned home and neighborhood amenities in our listings.
Let’s hit the road, shall we?
Factor 1: Homes appreciate faster in cities
As of January 2016, city homes have seen their values grow by 11.3% from one year ago, outpacing suburban home values, which have grown 6.7%. Currently, homes in urban neighborhoods are listed at significantly higher prices ($431,000) than in the suburbs ($230,000).
Here are the top five markets where urban dwellings are appreciating the fastest:
Urban home price change (Jan. 2015-Jan. 2016)
Suburban home price change (Jan. 2015-Jan. 2016)
1 Honolulu, HI 26.8% 1.9%
2 Pittsburgh, PA 17.3% 0.0%
3 Seattle, WA 29.6% 13.9%
4 Portland, OR 26.3% 14.4%
5 Atlanta, GA 24.5% 13.6%
Much of this growth is due to new construction. Honolulu, for example, has always been a highly desirable place, but in recent years the downtown waterfront area has become hotter then an island blacktop in August due to its growing luxury condominium inventory. In particular, Kakaako, a crane-dotted neighborhood 2 miles from Waikiki Beach, is in the midst of explosive expansion.
Some cities, such as Seattle, are enjoying the benefits of being high-tech epicenters. Others are seeing the results from long-term campaigns to revitalize their older neighborhoods, such as Atlanta’s focus on its once-crumbling Old Fourth Ward.
So does all this mean you should rush back to the city? Not without considering some other factors. Such as…
Factor 2: Your dog will be happier in the suburbs
All that stuff that’s been drilled into you by your parents and endless reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch” still stands: You’ll have way more room to spread out in the suburbs—they’re great for kids and dogs alike. In general, suburban homes are 300 square-feet bigger than urban homes. With the increased space, more homeowners are able to have features such as a family room, backyard, and garage—all of which they tout in our listings. Never dismiss the power of a nice backyard.
Factor 3: Museums and mojitos vs. trails and teachers
You choose! For city dwellers, you can have a variety of obscure and awesome ethnic restaurants, open all night, just blocks from your front door. You like Sri Lankan cuisine? You can get Sri Lankan cuisine. Or you can hop on the bus or subway to peruse the museum, or drop your paycheck in a pricey boutique. The high life! Listings for homes in the city often check off these boxes.
For suburban residents, you can avoid the fumes of city buses and garbage trucks and opt for a run in the woods—our listings show that more suburban homes boast of their proximity to parks and trails. And suburban towns often boast good public schools. You are more likely to be on your own for food and entertainment, though, so keep the fridge full and your Netflix subscription up-to-date.
Factor 4: Cities are more dangerous, but less than you might think
We all know that cities can be scary places. And, yes, crime stats back this up. But the difference between city safety and suburban safety is becoming less pronounced each year.
According to 2014 FBI crime statistics, within all metropolitan areas in the United States, major cities had twice the property crime rate and 2.5 times the violent crime rate compared to surrounding suburban areas. Even though cities had seen significant declines in crime—a 14% decrease in violent crime and a 12% drop in the property-crime rate from 2009 to 2014—they had a long way to go before catching up with the suburbs.
But, hey, let’s get real: Violent crime is only part of the safety issue, and criminals aren’t the greatest threat to your health and well-being. A University of Pennysylvania study showed that the number of deaths from unintentional injuries are 15 times greater across the United State than those from homicides. And on this metric, urban areas win out: Researchers found that city dwellers are 20% less likely than most rural residents to die from injuries, with the top three causes of death being motor vehicle collisions, firearms and poisoning.
Factor 5: You can choose your route to a healthier lifestyle
In terms of access to health services, no significant disparity was detected between urban and suburban home listings. But as far as environmental conditions go, urban settings are way less than ideal: Filthy air contributes to respiratory diseases, dense population facilitates the spread of viruses, and fast-paced life increases stress levels. While many cities are making progress in cleaning up their air and adding green space, there’s still a considerable gap with many suburbs.
But living in the suburbs is not without its health drawbacks. The lack of public transportation leads people to spend about 18% more time driving, according to researchers at the University of Connecticut and the University of Colorado. City dwellers, on the other hand, tend to walk and bike more, contributing to lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, the research reveals.
The debate will never end. But at some point, you’ll make your choice, and it’ll be the right one. Eventually.
Yuqing Pan covers data-driven stories at realtor.com. A Stanford graduate with a multimedia journalism background, Yuqing enjoys tracking, analyzing, and writing about data.