City, Burbs, or Country Where Do You Belong?

If you’ve never owned a home, you may struggle with this gut-wrenching life decision.

The real key to finding your “ideal” homestead: imagine yourself happy there.

When young buyers are surveyed, their preference for the kind of place they’d prefer to live breaks down something like this: 

  • 53 percent suburbs
  • 35 percent city
  • 12 percent in rural (country) settings. 

That’s not surprising, considering it’s almost exactly how America’s population divides up. And it won’t surprise you to know that for generations, most Americans have purchased their first home at about age 36. It’s just a thing. Not a millennial thing, or a boomer thing, just a general societal trend.

Before you box yourself into one lifestyle or another, you may want to examine your own desires and biases, and make sure you’re not missing key points. Also, as we’ll discuss, attachment to a place can increase (or decrease) depending on how you choose to embrace your new digs.

where do you belong

Home Buyer Advice 

“My wife and I wanted to be renters for life,” recalls James Major, founder of Insurance Panda. “We enjoyed the flexibility of moving around from city to city, and not having to pay for a handyman to fix everything. After having kids, however, we decided to settle down in an inner suburb of New York City.”

That was January 2020, just before the pandemic. One year later, Major has some regrets:

“After living here for a year, I can honestly say I wish we still lived in our apartment. At the apartment, I didn’t care if there was a leak, or the floor creaked, or the lawn wasn’t green enough. In this house, every little thing that goes wrong bothers me to no end. I also thought the extra space would be good for us since we have two toddlers running around, but it’s proven to be a nightmare since we are always chasing them up and down the stairs. At our two-bedroom apartment, there really wasn’t much trouble they could get into.”

Learning to Love a Place

Here’s the rub. Different new home buyers will make the same statement about other types of neighborhoods. And it’s not just because of demographics and family size. According to Melody Warnick, author of This is Where You Belong, the real key to finding your happy place depends on you taking an active role.

“To fall in love with your town,” she writes, “do what your town is good at—preferably with other people. Here, in southwest Virginia, most of the people I’d become friends with hiked for entertainment.”

So Warnick joined a hiking group, met dozens of new people, and found that the place around her new home took on new meaning. “My brain subconsciously formed new mental associations,” she recalls, “and soon, a kudzu-beribboned forest no longer prompted a PTSD flashback from childhood viewings of The Watcher in the Woods.”

Case in point, Melanie Musson bought a home in a subdivision in the Belgrade region of Montana. She made the choice based on price, not passion.

“It’s considered rural, as it qualified for a rural development loan,” she says, “but it’s in a subdivision with closely packed houses. If we could have afforded it, we would have chosen rural. We made the best choice based on our finances.”

Over time, however, Musson “grew into” her neighborhood. “We’re happier with where we live now than we thought we would be,” she says. “Our neighborhood has a great school, a community center, a convenience store, a lake for swimming, and sand volleyball courts. If I was to do it all over again, I would do the same thing. We’re lucky to live in such a wonderful community.”

What did she learn from the experience?

"If I could turn back time, I would definitely choose to stay in our apartment. To other potential first time home buyers, I would say: Think long and hard about your purchase." ­— James Major


"We’re happier where we live now than we thought we would be. If we ever do move, we hope to find a bigger house in the same neighborhood."— Melanie Musson

“New home buyers need to pay attention to more than just the house they’re looking at. They need to investigate activities within walking distance and what other amenities are available nearby.”

One of the reasons Americans struggle so much with location indecision is that we like our mobility. And people between 25 and 40 take that freewheeling spirit to new levels. Warnick calls our restlessness 

“The Lost Art of Staying Put,” and describes the intoxicating lure of starting over every few years with a “clean slate.” 

But nomadic living comes at a cost, or it can, if you sit passively by, waiting for your new neighborhood to find you. It may not happen. 

Here’s a look at the pros and cons of three lifestyles.

City Life

  • No commute
  • Ample jobs
  • Great food
  • Endless entertainment
  • Walkable lifestyle
  • Bike-friendly
  • Exercise classes
  • Leans left, more diverse
  • Less privacy
  • Smaller yards
  • Tourist invasions
  • Noisy neighbors
  • Bad pet owners

Suburban Digs

  • Short commute times
  • Well-funded schools
  • Some yard space
  • Nearby playgrounds/parks
  • Leans center-right, less diverse
  • Neighborly expectations
  • Auto-centric living
  • Skews less diverse

Country Living

  • Closer to nature
  • More room for kids
  • More room to garden
  • Fewer rules and codes
  • Leans right, little diversity
  • Long commutes
  • Few nearby jobs
  • Limited entertainment options
  • Rarely bike-friendly
  • Socially isolated
  • Schools often consolidated

Download your free copy of Green Builder’s 2021 Home Buyer’s Guide and learn more key things to consider when buying a home.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Home Buyer Campaign Sponsors: Panasonic, Whirlpool, Rockwool, and Lee Industries. These companies take sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource-intensive on Today's Home Buyer.